When I was born in 1957, the peak year of the Baby Boom, so were 4.3 million other American children. Last year, the number of births fell to an 11-year low of just under 4 million, despite the fact that the U.S. population has grown from around 170 million to 309 million in my lifetime.
Of course, the Baby Boom represented an unusual time. But even if women last year had given birth at the same rate as in the 1980s, when my wife and I started our family, there would have been an additional 1 million births.
How did we lose a million babies last year?
Population researchers largely blame the recession. “Births reflect confidence in good or rising income over the next 10 years,” Peter Francese, a demographic-trends analyst for the MetLife Mature Market Institute, told Bloomberg.
Researchers like Francese predict that the birth rate will pick up again as employment and incomes do. The current “declines in births are births that are deferred, not births that are lost,” Charles Lieberman, chief investment officer with Advisors Capital Management LLC in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, told Bloomberg. I am not so sure.
The economy is certainly part of the story, but I don’t think the recession is the only factor in play here. The decline in birth rates started well before the onset of the recession. Despite the economic boom of the 1990s, the fertility rate – which compares the number of births to the number of women of childbearing age, defined as ages 15 to 44 – fell 10 percent from 1990 to 1997. For whatever reason, our country’s baby-making machinery is slowing down.
I do not believe that the explanation is that fewer people want to be parents. There have certainly been societal changes that have affected decisions about parenthood, mainly women’s increased participation in the workforce. But even as the effects of those changes should have leveled off, the decline in birth rates has continued.
The real explanation, I think, is that parenthood has simply become dauntingly expensive in our society. The problem is not so much the short-term decline in incomes that resulted from the recession and its aftermath as it is the gradual escalation of the costs of rearing a child. The price tag for raising a child to the age of 17 in a middle-class environment is now around $226,920, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated. That’s 22 percent more, in real dollars, than it was in 1960.
Three of the biggest expenses prospective parents must contemplate are housing, education and medical care. All of these are areas where increases in costs have consistently outpaced overall inflation for decades.
To a large extent, the reason these costs have gone up is a change in our own standards. We want the best for our children, and the best, in many cases, costs a lot of money.
In my parents’ generation, it was common for kids to share bedrooms with siblings. Now, however, many parents feel that each child must have his or her own space. Providing that space means spending more on bigger houses. Just from 1991 to 2007, the average American house size increased from 1,672 square feet to 1,789 square feet.
When our children head to school, we now are dismayed by classes with more than 20 or 25 students, whereas, in the past, schoolrooms came with around 30 desks and no more technology than a blackboard and chalk. Parents today also tend to believe that, to do their jobs right, they need not only to get their kids off to school every morning, but to make sure the buses their kids board will take them to the best school around, even if that means paying more to live in a better district or forking over tuition for private school. Then, of course, there are the mountains of money we spend to send our children to college.
On the healthcare front, the idea of what qualifies as standard care has changed dramatically. Visits to allergy specialists and MRIs for head injuries, for example, have become routine in a way that they were not (and, in the case of MRIs and other high-tech scans, could not have been) in 1960, Mark Lino, the USDA economist who oversaw the research on family expenditures explained to the Christian Science Monitor. As a result, health care costs have doubled.
Beyond these big three expenses, parents pour out money for a variety of incidentals. This holiday season, in many households, children will unwrap iPads and laptops instead of dolls or trains. Most families in the United States spend about $450 per child for Christmas, according to the market research firm NPD. PB&Js made with Wonder Bread, Skippy and Smuckers have been replaced with locally baked whole wheat bread, organic peanut butter and jams containing fruits that kids of my generation probably could not have named.
Modern parents comfort themselves that by spending enough money, they will succeed at being “good parents.” “I think there is this contemporary mind-set that kicks in when you become a parent," Brett Graff, a former U.S. government economist and editor of Miami-based HomeEconomist.com, told The Christian Science Monitor. “You're told, for instance, if you don't buy this particular thing, your child won't get into college.”
But with our insistence on giving our offspring the best childhoods money can buy, we are effectively pricing ourselves out of having more children.
There is plenty of debate about how family size affects individual children. On a larger scale, though, the effect of denying our children more brothers and sisters is clear. Fewer new babies today will mean fewer new households, new workers, new parents and new leaders in the middle of the 21st century. As I have mentioned before, I think a serious labor shortage is a real possibility. The children we do have will bear a larger burden to make up for their missing peers.
This season, as parents shop for their $450 worth of gifts, they might want to think about the one gift they aren’t getting their children: a baby brother or sister.
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